Adored by critics yet largely shunned by the mainstream, experimental rockers Wild Beasts finally seem set to reach a wider audience with their extraordinary new album Present Tense.
Ahead of its release, drummer Chris Talbot spoke to Mark Butler about going electronic, keeping people on their toes, and the carnage that would unfold if they actually hit the big-time.
Hi Chris. Your new single ‘Wanderlust’ has had an incredible reaction since it landed online. How do you feel about the response?
“We’ve been pretty bowled over by it. It’s still a massively presumptuous thing to put out a record, so the reaction has been really positive.
“It’s a statement track. We wanted it to be a departure from what people expected, but it’s still got that haunting vibe.”
Your new synth-driven sound has evoked comparisons with everyone from John Carpenter to Heaven 17. What’s been your favourite one so far?
“Ah. You’ve caught me unawares there! I try not to read too much about us. I’ll take the John Carpenter one though!
“The electronic style has been a natural curiosity for us for a while now, and we’ve finally wholeheartedly embraced it. We’re not worried any more about having to have guitars; to have a rigid band structure with two guitars and a bass, and what have you. Hopefully people think it’s an exciting change of direction.”
Your previous album Smother incorporated electronica elements – but what was the main driving force behind your decision to go full-blown electronic this time around?
“We’ve been doing this a long time now, and we wouldn’t want to become a pastiche of ourselves. Smother and Two Dancers were made within a short time of each other, and I don’t feel we made a great sonic leap forward. We didn’t have the benefit of looking outward.
“With Present Tense, we had that time away, and a sense of perspective that came with it.”
It’s been almost three years since the last record, and you took a full year to work on the new material. Was Present Tense a particularly ambitious undertaking?
“We think so. You have to move away from the area where you feel comfortable in. We don’t pretend to be electronic masters – we’re schooling ourselves.”
What were the main things you wanted to achieve with this album?
“We always like to challenge people. People have to meet us halfway. We’re still a peculiar piece of meat for some.
“We didn’t want to make the same record again – and I think we’ve achieved that.”
Smother was a huge critical success, and was your first album to debut in the Top 20. Did you feel a certain amount of pressure to match or exceed its success with Present Tense?
“Yes and no. We did have half an eye on how popular things could be, so some of the songs are more streamlined and direct than before. But that’s actually been a fascinating thing for us.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be the sort of band that cynically makes a ‘commercial’ record. We’ve never tried to be something we’re not. In a way, we’ve always felt like we’re on the outside looking in.”
The lyrics in ‘Wanderlust’ are quite striking, and seemingly snipe at the rich. What’s the song about, and what was the idea that prompted it?
“I’m speaking for Hayden [the band’s lead singer and lyricist] here, but it came from a place where there’s certain acts where people have found themselves in the position to be creative by having some money in the coffers.
“It’s a sonically dark song, though it’s actually supposed to be playful and tongue in cheek. We’re not bitter about it. That said, what money can’t buy is a good idea.”
Hayden’s previously written about everything from brawling gangs of youths to romantic trysts. What would you say are the overriding themes of Present Tense?
“I’d still say it’s mainly about love and relationships, but it’s not as insular as Smother. That sounded quite bruised.
“We’ve had so much time to have a more standardised pace of life, so it’s more of a commentary and less of a heartbreak record.”
There’s an impressive variety of tone on Present Tense. Some songs are intimate and sombre, others soaring and euphoric. Was it important for you to keep people on their toes?
“Yeah. Of course. You don’t want to be the band that goes down the electronic route and doesn’t succeed. We wanted to wear our hearts on our sleeves with the synth. When it’s in, it’s really in.”
What would you say is your favourite song from the new album, and why?
“I personally love ‘Pregnant Pause’. We found the groove with that one. It’s a beautiful song, and shows how far we’ve come as a band.”
Are there any songs you’re particularly looking forward to playing live?
“When we started batting ‘Wanderlust’ around the studio, we realised it could become a focal point of the set.”
You’re back on the road in March of course. What’s life generally like for Wild Beasts on tour?
“We’re really quiet compared to a lot of bands. We’ve been doing this a while, and the longer you do it, the more you get bored by the constant partying every night. We got that out of our system when we were in our early twenties.
“It may sound boring – but we’re quite sensible now.”
Your music has often been described as ‘sensual’ and ‘decadent’. How do you feel about those labels?
“It’s not a bad thing. I suppose they’re a little bit hammy, but they’re not necessarily words you’d use to describe music normally. We’ve always had a natural intuitive groove. It can be quite sensual – but also jarring and in-your-face at times.”
You’ve long been adored by critics, and have a highly enthusiastic following behind you, but you’ve yet to truly break through into the mainstream consciousness. Is that something that’s frustrated you in the past?
“I wouldn’t say we’ve been frustrated by it. When we hear a lot of music in the mainstream it’s not the kind of thing we necessarily like. We’ve always said a small army can never be under-estimated. Our trajectory has been gradual, but it’s always been on the upward curve.
“We don’t necessarily want to be multi-millionaires playing to tens of thousands of people every night. That’s not really what we’re about. I’d hate for us to lose our connection with people. That’s where we place ourselves; chest-bumping near the front and bouncing around.”
Do you think Present Tense could be the record that finally lands you in the big-time?
“The head says no. The heart says yes. But it’s not something that keeps us awake at night. We’re very fortunate to be with a label like Domino that support more creative acts.”
Back in 2010, I spoke to Hayden following your Mercury Prize nomination for Two Dancers. He said that if you won, you’d “probably find the most wasteful, indulgent way of spending the prize money”. If Present Tense did indeed transform you into music giants, do you think you’d be propelled into a fame-induced spiral of excess, anarchy and self-destruction?
“Yeah, probably. We’ve been choir boys for far too long. It’s time for the balls to drop and us to become men!
“We’ve always said that if we win any kind of major money we’d just stick a load of toilets in the tour bus – and see what happens.”
Present Tense is out on February 24. For more information and updates, visit the official website
Wild Beasts tour the UK and Ireland this Spring:
Mar 26: Manchester, Albert Hall
Mar 27: Glasgow, The Arches
Mar 29: Dublin, Olympia Theatre
Mar 30: Bristol, 02 Academy
Mar 31: Cambridge, Corn Exchange
Apr 1: London, 02 Academy Brixton
What do you think of this interview?
Want more stuff like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the weekly WOW247 newsletter